Hilary Foretich, the 5-year-old daughter of two successful medical professionals, is the ironic victim of a celebrated custody dispute. Both parents have fought bitterly for her, yet she lives with neither.
Hilary’s mother, Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, hid her daughter in August to prevent the child’s father, Dr. Eric Foretich, from seeing Hilary.
Morgan, a respected plastic surgeon and a best-selling author, was jailed four months ago after she defied a court order that she turn Hilary over to her father.
Morgan contends that Foretich, an oral surgeon, had sexually abused their daughter. A city judge and a federal jury said there was no reason to believe her claims.
Host of Issues
“It’s a lie. A total lie. There isn’t even a grain of truth to it,” said Foretich, who says he has passed two lie detector tests.
The battle for custody of Hilary Foretich has drawn attention because of its complexity and length, the sensational nature of the charges Morgan and Foretich fling at each other, the prominence of the parents and the battery of experts and lawyers brought into the fray.
The case encompasses a host of thorny issues:
- How are the actions of a child to be interpreted?
- Should children be believed when they relate tales of sexual abuse, and how often are parents accused of sexual abuse in divorce cases?
- How reliable is the testimony of paid experts?
U.S. District Judge Richard Williams calls the Morgan-Foretich case the “most bitter domestic dispute” to come before him.
From the District of Columbia jail cell she has occupied since Aug. 28, Morgan, 40, a soft-spoken woman with porcelain skin and thick dark-brown hair, says she is ready to stay behind bars and apart from her daughter into the 21st Century to keep Hilary away from a man she calls “very clever, very determined.”
Fears ‘Human Sacrifice’
“Hilary could be destroyed. She could grow up like her father. I am not prepared to have a human sacrifice,” Morgan said.
Nonsense, says Foretich, 44, a trim, youthful man with huge brown eyes that dominate his face. Morgan once compared him to Lord Byron.
He calls his wife’s allegations “a total fabrication” and points to victories he has won in D.C. Superior Court and in the U.S. District Court in Virginia.
His former wife, he says, is a “pseudo Joan of Arc” who enjoys the attention she is getting.
“I personally don’t care . . . whether she is in jail,” Foretich said in an interview in his office. “My concern and my only concern is, where is my daughter?”
Foretich says he is upset that law enforcement authorities have not done more to help him find her.
“I know not only that she is being well cared for but she is healing,” said Morgan, who married Foretich five years ago in Haiti, shortly after she became pregnant, and left him the week before Hilary was born.
Bruce Nicholson, a legislative coordinator at the American Bar Assn. and editor of a forthcoming ABA handbook on child abuse, said cases involving young children are particularly hard to prove because victims have such limited verbal skills. Nicholson’s handbook is designed to help legal professionals decide if allegations are true or false.
Child sexual abuse cases are particularly tricky because research in the field is so scant, experts said.
Melvin Guyer, co-counsel on Foretich’s legal team, said there has been a “dramatic increase in sexual abuse allegations” by divorcing parents.
Guyer, a lawyer and a psychologist who runs the Family and Law Program at the University of Michigan, said his research indicates that more than half of such allegations are false.
But Susan White, director of the Middlesex County, Mass., child abuse project, said other research has shown young children “do not lie about sexual abuse.” She added: “It’s a very, very rare case that a child has been programmed to present sex abuse. Usually the lying that goes on is the retraction of the sexual abuse allegations because of fear.”
A study by Dr. Muriel Sugarman, a child psychiatrist and co-director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Infancy and Early Childhood Program, found that three out of four probate courts do not believe a child’s allegations of sexual abuse against a divorced or separated parent.
Sugarman’s team studied 19 children aged 6 or under who were thought to have been physically abused by the biological father after a divorce or separation. The abuse had been documented separately.
“The allegations were disbelieved by the judicial system--judges, attorneys guardians ad litem , court-appointed attorneys for the children, probation and family court officers--in 73.7% of the cases,” Sugarman said.
In the Morgan-Foretich case, the courts have sided with Foretich.
On July 17, 1986, Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr. of the D.C. Superior Court said he did not believe Hilary had been abused and ordered Morgan to turn the child over to the father for 10 weekends.
Last August, the judge expanded Foretich’s visitation rights to span two weeks. When Morgan refused, she was jailed indefinitely for civil contempt and fined $5,000 a day. Earlier she had two brief stints in jail.
On Feb. 20, 1987, a federal jury in Alexandria, Va., dismissed Morgan’s allegations against Foretich and his parents, Doris and Vincent Foretich of Newport News, Va.
In her civil lawsuit, Morgan asserted that Foretich’s parents had participated in the abuse of her daughter during court-ordered visits from 1983 until early 1986. The jury’s decision was a “complete exoneration” of the Foretiches, according to their lawyer, Thomas Albro.
A federal appeals court in Richmond is set to hear the case in early January.
Seek to Publicize Case
While court records in the case are sealed, Morgan and her fiancee, Paul Michel, an aide to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), have worked to publicize the case, believing their cause will be helped by airing the facts.
Before her custody battle, Morgan was well-known in literary circles. One of her three books, “The Making of a Woman Surgeon,” was a best-seller. Another, “Custody,” detailed the split from her husband, her battle for Hilary and her close relationship with her mother, Antonia.
Morgan also wrote a health column for Cosmopolitan magazine.
Now, she says, she is broke. She has spent $500,000 on the custody case and owes $1 million in legal and medical fees, in addition to the $5,000-a-day fine that started Aug. 28.
Foretich, married for a fourth time in 1986 to a dentist, refuses to say how much he has spent on the case.
Morgan’s lawyers--four teams have worked on the case, including Stephen Sachs, a former Maryland attorney general--are basing their appeal on their claim that the judge is biased against their client and is ignorant about child sexual abuse.
Cite Withheld Evidence
They also contend that they lost the federal trial because the jury was not permitted to hear all the evidence, including testimony about 7-year-old Heather Foretich, Hilary’s half-sister.
Heather, Morgan’s lawyers say, once told a Fairfax County social worker that her father had played with her in a sexual manner and that she witnessed the sexual abuse of Hilary, according to a legal brief filed by Morgan’s lawyers.
Heather has not seen her father for two years, attorneys confirmed. A judge suspended unsupervised visits between Heather and her father in 1986 as part of a settlement between the parents.
Foretich claims that Morgan and Heather’s mother, Sharon Sullivan, have conspired against him. They say that allegation is silly.
There is conflicting evidence about Hilary’s condition.
“Hilary named her father as her abuser and I had no reason to doubt this,” said Dr. Mary Froning, Hilary’s psychologist since January, 1986. “She showed me on anatomically correct models where her father had touched her and where she had touched her father.” Froning said Hilary exhibited psychological patterns consistent with abuse, such as depression.
Intertwined with Hilary’s fate is Morgan’s future.
Prepared for Long Stay
Dixon’s contempt citation is in effect until Hilary is 18. “I don’t think I will have to stay here 13 years but I came prepared to do that,” Morgan said.
Unless she turns over her daughter, which Morgan says she will not do, she thinks the earliest she could be released is late 1988, after the appeals process.
Sachs, Morgan’s attorney, is fighting the contempt order on the ground that Morgan’s constitutional rights were violated because Dixon closed the hearing to the public. He also said the jailing will not make Morgan produce the child.
Paul Rothstein, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and an expert on contempt matters, said the fine and sentence levied on Morgan are “unusual but . . . not out of bounds.” He said judges have broad leeway in compelling people to comply with court rulings.